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Gisborne District Council lifts block on prolific writer of emails

A Gisborne man has received an apology from the district council after he was barred from contacting councillors for being "unreasonably persistent".

Gisborne man Peter Millar has had his email address unblocked by the district council after taking his case to the Office of the Ombudsman. Source: LDR / Alice Angeloni

By Alice Angeloni, Local Democracy Reporter

The chief executive at Gisborne District Council (GDC) blocked Peter Millar's email address on February 14, 2019, after staff raised concerns about his repeated requests for information about the city's inner harbour redevelopment. He was also blocked from commenting on the council's Facebook page.

Nineteen months after action was taken under the Unreasonable Complainant Conduct Policy, discussions between the council and Office of the Ombudsman have led to Millar's email address being unblocked, so that he can request a review of the decision.

"I make no apologies for being persistent," Millar said, noting he was a marina berth-holder at the time.

He had been emailing the council over a reduction in car parking at the inner harbour, and said he was stopped from further alerting councillors to "pertinent issues".

"This was just a smokescreen to cover the stuff that I had been trying to portray."

89 pages of correspondence

Laptop computer (file picture). Source: istock.com

However, GDC internal partnerships director James Baty said it had 89 pages worth of correspondence with Millar about the inner harbour, dating back to 2011, and despite being advised he was an unreasonable complainant on February 14, and being blocked from the council's Facebook page, Millar continued making contact with elected members and staff for another two months.

"At this point his email address was blocked," Baty said.

Millar, who last year brought attention to a leaking roof on the almost $1 million public toilet at the inner harbour, said he had been "gagged" on the topic of the inner harbour. Being "blanket blocked" meant he was unable to email councillors on other subjects, but Baty said he was advised that he could continue to access the council services.

In a letter to Millar dated September 29, the council democracy and support services manager Heather Kohn said blocking his email address had "inadvertently restricted" his ability to apply for a review of the decision, and for "normal interaction" with the council.
"For this I apologise on behalf of council staff," she said.

The letter said Millar would still be restricted from the council's Facebook page, and staff had been told not to engage with him about the inner harbour marina, however, he could request a review of the ongoing Facebook block by writing to the chief executive.

"A fuller description of how you could continue to access full public services should have been provided, again apologies for this oversight and I hope you have not been inconvenienced too much," she wrote.

The council originally took action because it said Millar was "repeatedly raising the same issues", and he was unable to accept their responses despite numerous attempts.

It said Millar communicated inaccurate and "inflammatory" information through the council's social media channels, and used multiple channels to request the same information, made requests for information that was available on its website, and the resources allocated to dealing with his requests were expensive.

Blocking comments 'a dangerous road ' - academic

Gisborne District Council offices. Source: LDR/ Alice Angeloni

Massey University local government and public management specialist Dr Andy Asquith said blocking a citizen from commenting was "not very democratic", but it was not completely "black and white".

"In principle, it's not the thing to do. There will always be someone who does not agree with the policies council has decided to follow," he said.

In this situation, it looked as if someone at the council had taken the view that this resident was a "pain in the neck", Asquith said.
"In democracy we have freedom of speech. Pains in the neck, in my view, are to be celebrated and to be accepted.

"If we start cracking down on people's ability to say things, even though we might not like what they have to say, then that's a very dangerous road to start going down," he said.

Millar is in the process of applying for a review of the decision, but is not optimistic on the outcome.